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Most players who’ve enjoyed a stellar 14-year stint in the NRL, almost 250 games at the top and an involvement in six Origin campaigns would be happy to reflect on achievements made and goals reached as the sun starts to dip on their glittering career. Not Ashley Harrison, though – the Gold Coast Titan is only focused on the future, playing on for a few more years and, just possibly, finally being able to pull on a Kangaroos jumper.
“When you play rugby league it’s week to week… you don’t get much time to think of these things but I’m sure when I retire I’ll look back on it as a great achievement,” back-rower Harrison, who will celebrate his 250th NRL match against the Sea Eagles at Skilled Park on Saturday, tells NRL.com.
“When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was play one first grade game, so to get to 250… it’s a bit hard to fathom.”
For Harrison – an NRL journeyman who started in Brisbane with a title in 2000 before stints at the Rabbitohs (2003-2005) and Roosters (2006-2007) prior to returning to Queensland to join the Titans in 2008 – there’s plenty more to achieve in the game he’s always loved. After all, it’s why the 31-year-old recently signed a new deal at the Gold Coast that ensures he’ll still be playing in the sand-and-blue until the end of 2015.
“The future (at the Titans) does look bright and that was one of the main reasons why I wanted to sign again, ’cause of our list at the moment and the potential there is pretty exciting,” Harrison says.
“I wanted to be part of that and I know if we continue to improve and grow as a group we’re going to be successful down the track, and even the end of this year it’s exciting.
“A couple of years ago we were one game off the ‘GF’, but in saying that it’s a lot different side now. The club’s been hard at work to assemble a really great footy side and I don’t think success is too far away.”
The Titans have already exceeded many pundits’ form expectations in 2013, falling narrowly to Cronulla in Round 1 before blowing away the Raiders 36-nil last Sunday. That match was a fine hit-out for their home clash with undefeated Manly.
A passionate Queenslander, Harrison never wanted to leave the Sunshine State at the end of the 2002 season, but financial obligations – and just a modest offer from his then-club Brisbane – ensured he headed south.
“It was really tough there [in Sydney] for a couple of years – I suppose it made me grow up in a lot of ways and, to be honest, I wouldn’t really change a thing,” Harrison says.
“Wayne [Bennett] said it was the last thing he wanted to do by letting me go… There was always a contract in Brisbane but at the time I purchased my first property and had a few things going on… I just couldn’t survive on the contract that was there and I had to look elsewhere.”
After five years in Sydney with the Rabbitohs and Roosters, Harrison accepted an invitation to join the Titans in their second NRL season – and the move has, in fact, lengthened Harrison’s career that at the time was hanging in the balance.
“Billy Johnstone, ‘Gilly’ [Trevor Gillmeister] and ‘Carty’ [John Cartwright] are to thank for getting me back here,” Harrison says. “I was probably at a bit of a crossroads of my career where I’d done my knee the year before at the Roosters and I’d probably lost a bit of my desire for rugby league… they really turned my career around in one off-season… and in that year they got me back in the Queensland side and I owe them a lot for that.”
Harrison has represented the Maroons 14 times, including a streak of all matches from Origin II in 2008 to Origin II 2012, and nominates representing his home state as one of his proudest achievements – even if he’s not prepared to gloat about his personal performances.
The Norths Aspley junior credits his teammates, parents and partner Majella with his success – without them, he says, achievements in rugby league would have been unobtainable.
“My wife and I have been together since high school… She left family and friends like I did in Queensland when we moved to Sydney – we were both really young at 22 – and it was a massive step for her, and I’m pretty certain if it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be in the position I am in today,” Harrison said.
“I’ve got my parents to thank for [making it in the NRL], taking me to training and games as I was growing up – they have been such good role models and I owe a lot to them… they’ve probably seen more than half of my total games at a guess!”
Don’t think the thanks and credit being dished to his closest supports is some form of farewell or a curtain call before he rides off into the rugby league wilderness; Harrison is deadly serious about achieving even more in the game before potentially hanging up the boots in 2015. It goes about ensuring he’ll finish his career within touching distance of legends like Lockyer, Lamb, Menzies, Fittler and Lyons.
A string of injuries have hampered him in recent years – he’s suffered osteitis pubis, a problematic peroneal tendon in his ankle and that knee problem. Despite the hurdles, Harrison’s burning desire to play for Australia – and complete the premiership, Origin and national-selection trifecta – remains as strong as ever.
“The last few seasons I’ve had off-season surgery and that’s put me out of the picture but in saying that I just want to get through this year and not have the problem of needing off-season surgery and fingers crossed I am a chance,” Harrison says of earning a Kangaroos jersey.
“It’s definitely something that’s on my list of things to do but again that’s out of my hands.
“I want to be a part of that Queensland side for as long as I can and, at the end of the year, I want to move closer to a premiership ring – that’s something I really want to achieve up here. And I really want to play for Australia.
“There’s a lot for me in the game that I still want to achieve and that’s a massive reason why I have decided to play on until 2015.”